The Two Saddest Words

The Two Saddest Words

From Chicken Soup for the Soul 20th Anniversary Edition

The Two Saddest Words

Precaution is better than cure.

~Edward Coke

Two of the saddest words in the English language are “if only.” I live my life with the goal of never having to say those words, because they convey regret, lost opportunities, mistakes, and disappointment. And sometimes the words “if only” go with terrible tragedies. Think about how many times you have heard about something awful happening, accompanied by “if only he had called her back to make sure she was okay...” or “if only I had investigated that noise...” or “if only they had made sure the gate to the pool clicked behind them...”

My father-in-law is famous in our family for saying, “Take the extra minute to do it right.” He must be doing something right, since he’s 91 years old and still making a lot of sense.

I always try to live by the “extra minute” rule. Sometimes it only takes seconds to make sure I write something down correctly, or check something on the Internet, or move an object out of the way before it trips someone. And of course when my children were young, and prone to all kinds of mishaps, I lived and breathed the extra minute rule. I always thought about what I could do to avoid an “if only” moment, whether it was something minor like moving a cup full of hot coffee away from the edge of a counter, or something that required a little more work such as taping padding onto the sharp corners of a glass coffee table.

I just read a news story about a student pilot who was thrown from an airplane when its canopy lifted off. The instructor, who was belted in, was fine. The student, whose seatbelt was not fastened, fell from the sky and his body was found on the ground somewhere in Tennessee. Imagine how many people are in mourning, and how terrified that man must have been as he fell from the plane and realized he was going to die. Imagine the chorus of “if only” coming from his family. If only he had been wearing his seatbelt... How simple would that have been?

I don’t move my car one inch until I hear the seatbelt click on every passenger. I unplug the iron when I leave the laundry room for “just a minute.” I’d hate to get distracted, not return to the laundry room, and start a fire with that forgotten iron. Imagine the “if only” I’d be saying then. After I realized that I could not be trusted with a teakettle — I left it boiling on the stove for an hour — I threw it out and bought an electric teakettle that shuts itself off. And I am paranoid about fireplace ashes. I wait till they are two weeks old, then shovel them into a bag on garbage collection day and put the bag 20 feet away from the house in the middle of the driveway.

When my teenage son was first driving, I worried that enforcing his curfew too strictly would cause him to speed and have an accident. A boy in the next town was killed when he drove too fast trying to make it home by midnight. So my son and I agreed on a plan — if he missed curfew he would just lose double those minutes the next night out. Ten minutes late meant 20 minutes shaved off the curfew the next time, consequences that were not so onerous that they would cause him to rush home.

When I was in a car accident a few years ago, resulting in spinal surgery and permanent nerve damage, I handled it well emotionally, because I wasn’t the driver who was at fault. There was no “if only” thinking for me, and it’s a lot easier to forgive someone else than it is to forgive yourself.

I don’t only avoid those “if only” moments when it comes to safety. It’s equally important to avoid “if only” in our personal relationships. We all know people who lost a loved one and bemoaned the fact that they had foregone an opportunity to say “I love you” or “I forgive you.” When my father announced he was going to the eye doctor across from my office on Good Friday, I told him that it was a holiday for Chicken Soup for the Soul and I wouldn’t be here. But then I thought about the fact that he’s 84 years old and I realized that I shouldn’t give up an opportunity to see him. I called him and told him I had decided to go to work on my day off after all. When my husband’s beloved, elderly uncle pocket-dialed me several times yesterday with his new cell phone, I urged my husband to call him back, invoking the “if only” possibility. My husband called him and was glad that he did. Now if anything happens, my husband won’t have to say, “If only I had called him back that day.”

I know there will still be occasions when I have to say “if only” about something, but my life is definitely more serene because of my policy of doing everything possible to avoid that eventuality. And even though it takes an extra minute to do something right, or it occasionally takes an hour or two in my busy schedule to make a personal connection, I know that I’m doing the right thing. I’m buying myself peace of mind and that’s the best kind of insurance for my emotional wellbeing.

~Amy Newmark

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